The Kurdish-led civilian administration in northeastern Syria issued a “general mobilization” call along the Syrian border with Turkey on Wednesday as Ankara poised for an imminent invasion of the area in the latest major escalation in the war-ravaged country.
Turkey has long threatened an attack on the Kurdish fighters in Syria whom Ankara considers terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey. A Syrian war monitoring group, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported Wednesday that people were fleeing the border town of Tal Abyad, which Turkey is expected to attack first.
Expectations for that assault rose after U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday abruptly announced that U.S. troops would step aside ahead of the Turkish push — a shift in U.S. policy that essentially abandoned the Syrian Kurds, longtime U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
But Trump also threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if the Turkish push into Syria went too far.
Turkey has been massing troops for days along its border with Syria and vowed it would go ahead with the military operation and not bow to the U.S. threat over its plans against the Kurds.
A senior Turkish official said Wednesday that Turkey’s troops would “shortly” cross into Syria, together with allied Syrian rebel forces to battle the Kurdish fighters and also ISIS.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on Turkey to show restraint and avoid military action in the region, adding that U.S. forces should leave the region.
“Turkey is rightfully worried about its southern borders. We believe that a correct path should be adopted to remove those concerns… American troops must leave the region… Kurds in Syria… should support the Syrian army,” state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying.
Rouhani’s comments came amid reports from Iranian state television of a surprise military drill with army special operations forces near the country’s border with Turkey. However, state TV didn’t mention the expected Turkish operation nor elaborate on the number of troops taking part in the drill in Qushchi in Iran’s Western Azerbaijan province. The area is about 620 kilometres northwest of Tehran.
Trump later cast his decision to pull back U.S. troops from parts of northeast Syria as fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from the “endless war” in the Middle East. Republican critics and others said he was sacrificing a U.S. ally, the Syrian Kurds, and undermining American credibility.
In its call for mobilization, the local Kurdish authority known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria also urged the international community to live up to its responsibilities as “a humanitarian catastrophe might befall our people” in the region.
“We call upon our people, of all ethnic groups, to move toward areas close to the border with Turkey to carry out acts of resistance during this sensitive historical time,” it said.
The statement said the mobilization would last for three days.
The Kurds also said that they want the U.S.-led coalition to set up a no-fly zone in northeast Syria to protect the civilian population from Turkish airstrikes.
Russia criticizes ‘reckless attitude’ of U.S.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, accused the U.S. of playing “very dangerous games” with the Syrian Kurds. Lavrov said during a visit to Kazakhstan on Wednesday that the U.S. first propped up the Syrian Kurdish “quasi state” in northeastern Syria and is now withdrawing its support.
He said that “such reckless attitude to this highly sensitive subject can set fire to the entire region, and we have to avoid it at any cost.” Russian news agencies carried Lavrov’s comments and reported that Moscow has communicated that position Washington.
Lavrov didn’t directly address the issue of Turkey’s anticipated invasion into northeastern Syria but said that Moscow is encouraging the Kurds and the Syrian government to settle their difference through talks.
The top Russian diplomat stressed that both Damascus and the Syrian Kurds have said they are “open to dialogue, and we will do our best to help launch talks on this subject.”
Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidency’s communications director, called on the international community in a Washington Post op-ed published Wednesday “to rally” behind Ankara, which he said would also take over the fight against the Islamic State group.
Turkey aimed to “neutralize” Syrian Kurdish militants in northeast Syria and to “liberate the local population from the yoke of the armed thugs,” Altun wrote.
ISIS militants hit Kurdish post in Raqqa
Earlier on Wednesday, ISIS militants targeted a post of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which was once the de facto ISIS capital at the height of the militants’ power in the region.
The Kurdish-led SDF, which is holding thousands of ISIS fighters in several detention facilities in northeastern Syria, has warned that a Turkish incursion might lead to the resurgence of the extremists. The U.S.-allied Kurdish-led force captured the last ISIS area controlled by the militants in eastern Syria in March.
In Wednesday’s attack, ISIS launched three suicide bombings against Kurdish positions in Raqqa. There was no immediate word on casualties. Raqqa is being Silently Slaughtered, an activist collective that covers news in the northern city, reported an exchange of fire and a blast.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Raqqa attack involved two ISIS fighters who engaged in a shootout before blowing themselves up.